The downside of having a nice big truck to drive the PA around in was that bands always wanted you to go and pick up the lights from the lighting company for them, and take them to the gig in your nice big truck. And then, of course, take them back the following morning. Mainly though, they wanted you to do it for nothing!
It wasn’t a really tiresome chore, but was a nuisance when you were running late (which was most of the time). So early on in my mixing life I made sure I took every band aside, and explained that I was quite happy to do stuff like pick up lights, pick up stage gear, whatever, but everything had a cost, usually about twenty bucks per stop for petrol, time, and wear-n-tear * on the truck.
Once they realised that most of their fee for playing would be going to Dunk’s Benevolent Society, not the band, they soon saw things my way, and started taking as much as possible themselves.
But lights wouldn’t t in their cars, so we had a regular little extra earner from doing this for them.
As my assistant Jim and I were out at the lighting company one afternoon, picking up the lights for the band, we noticed that all the lighting cases had chalk scribbles on them, like ‘NARROW’, ‘SPOT’, and ‘MFL’. And the ones we were picking up had MFL written on them.
“What’s MFL stand for,” I asked innocently, in my unceasing quest for knowledge, and before the lighting guy could answer ‘Medium Flood’, young Jim hopped in with a far more appropriate answer.
“More F***king Lights” he said.
The lighting guy was none too impressed.
This time my trusty assistant was a guy nicknamed Biffa, after a character from VIZ comics who suffered from a bad case of Short Person Syndrome.
We had landed ourselves a gig supplying the PA and lights for a band at the good old Astrodome, a converted picture theatre in Traralgon, a small town in Gippsland, Victoria.
Normally we would have hired one of the Bong Brothers, a couple of lighting guys with whom we often worked. However, their relationship with us had been strained in recent times by me kicking one of their PARcans onto the floor when they’d set my new carpeted wedges on fire!
The band said they would be bringing their own lighting guy with them, so upon arrival at the gig, we unloaded the PA and lights out of the truck, and put them to one side.
Then we set the PA up, checked the monitors, EQ’d the Front of House, and waited for the band to show up.
Eventually the band arrived with their stage gear, and as we were miking it up they casually announced that the lighting guy they’d hired couldn’t make it; could one of us do it? Biffa and I shuffled our feet, looked at the floor and at each other, rolling our eyes heavenwards.
The problem was that from our experience it was a very bad idea to let a band know that you knew how lights worked!
Lighting guys always made it seem so complicated, and as far as the band was concerned, ignorance was bliss.
After all, if the band realised that anybody could do it, then lighting guys would have no power base and no justification for the incredible amount of time they took to get it together. I mean, we’re only talking 16 cans at the most, not a Pink Floyd rig!
Worse than that though, was the fact that if you let on that you were quite capable of plugging up 16 lights and turning them on and off for a couple of hours, then they’d have you doing it all the time, and usually for nothing. So the best plan from a sound person’s point of view was to feign ignorance of all things incandescent!
The band’s leader looked desperate. Sensing that there was a bit of a problem, he offered money! Always a good idea. “Look,” he said “We’ll pay you the $80 we would have paid him if you can help us out”.
Biffa’s face lit up.
“OK “ he said, “I’ll do it.”
Well, no kidding, he set to work like a man possessed, and he had the whole thing up and running in 10 minutes at! To this day I don’t know how he had the nerve to get away with it.
He unpacked the lighting cases, pulling out 4 bars with 4 cans on each bar, and hung all 16 across the back of the stage. He gaffer taped a spot on top of each PA stack, and faced them across the front vocal line. And that was it!
Whatever gels were in the lights when he pulled them out of the cases stayed on them. Whatever order the cans were in as he randomly plugged them into the dimmer rack, well, that was the order they stayed in.
Jeez, it looked bright but messy.
Scuttling down to the lighting console, he set it up on a slow chase. Each time the band started a song he would adjust the chase so the lights would ash in time with the beat. At the end of each song he’d hit the blackout switch, followed by a 50% wash of the next colour in the chase.
It took him about 10 seconds per song to do all this; the rest of the time he spent drinking beer and perving at the girls on the dance floor!
I’ve got to admit that I was a bit worried as to how the band would react to all this, and sure enough, in the first break, the singer comes striding forcefully over to Biffa.
Uh oh, I thought, here we go – it’s whinge time.
Instead, the singer grabbed Biffa’s hand and shook it vigorously.
“Great light show, mate, really great – looks fantastic from where we are!”
I nearly fell over! And then I realised; all the band could see from on stage was a whole lot of lights flashing on and off around them! They probably felt as though they were on stage with a 200 can stadium light show.
“How does it look out front?” he asked.
What a question. Bands always ask this, whether it’s about the sound or the lights. What do they really think you’re going to say? -’Jeez it sounds / looks terrible tonight?’ Of course you’re not – well not if you’ve got half a brain and want to get paid, that is. They want to hear how great everything is, and Biffa didn’t disappoint them.
“Looks ne to me,” he said enthusiastically, “Makes the band really come alive!”
“Really? Great, wait till I tell the other guys. It’s really good of you to do this for us.”
Biffa smiled and said “No worries, mate, glad to be able to help out!”
As we walked off to the bar to get a couple of drinks, we were wetting ourselves laughing.
“You slack bastard,” I said “It’d better be your turn to buy the hamburgers on the way home tonight! That is, if your head’s not too big to t through the door of the truck!”
At the end of the night, the band asked him if he’d like to do lights for them permanently, as they were really impressed by the fantastic show he did at such short notice!
“Sure,” replied Biffa, guring that with both the band and me paying him, he would soon be living in the lap of luxury.
He blew it, though.
At their next gig he got totally tish-faced, and threw up on stage as we were packing up. That wasn’t too bad; as we all know, these things happen sometimes, but unfortunately the band caught him trying to mop up his chunder with their expensive hand painted backdrop, and sacked him on the spot!
That has to be one of the shortest lighting careers ever!
First published in CX Magazine (November, 2015)